What wonders he saw in the hours before he was killed. What horrors too.
Rifleman Robert Arthurs of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles died one hundred years ago today fighting at the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle. Robert is my great-great uncle.
I woke up thinking about him in that weary no-man’s land of not knowing whether he was my first thought this morning or whether I had been dreaming about him. I knew I would be writing this now though.
Robert was named after his father, my great-great grandfather, who worked in the docks. In 1901 the Arthurs family lived in Garmoyle Street in Sailortown, a hiving working-class community beneath the gantries on the northside of the basin.
My great grandfather Francis was a docker too and died in a work accident when he was crushed in a grain silo. His son, Robert, my grandfather, worked in the docks all of his life as well. Two of his sons were merchant seamen, and one, my uncle Robert, worked on the QE2, but that is a story for another day. So before we moved to Lepper Street in the New Lodge, the Arthurs family was Sailortown born, battered and bred.
Rifleman Robert Arthurs took to the sea with the Royal Irish Rifles and won a 1914 Star as a member of the British Expeditionary Force that fought from the outbreak of war in France and Belgium.
Whether it was misplaced adventure or answering Redmond’s misplaced call to arms, I do not know why Robert Arthurs joined the British Army to fight a rich man’s war. Nor is it for me to judge.
For it may be that he and his family like thousands of other Belfast families, simply needed means to feed themselves.
The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle
In the 1901 census Robert is recorded as 5 years of age but 18 in the census of 1911 (his brother John gained 3 years too). Academic and writer, John Ó Neill, sifted through baptism records to verify that the latter was correct. It was a small mercy that Robert was not a boy soldier when he joined the Rifles and only a teenager when he died in a corner of France far from his wife, Theresa, who by then was living in Dock Lane just around the corner from Garmoyle Street.
The battle of Neuve-Chapelle which began on 10th March 1915 marked a watershed not only for the battalion and the British Army, but also for the static warfare of the trenches. The first large scale, organized British offensive of the war showed that breakthrough could be achieved through planning, build-up and surprise.
As well as Battalions from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, there were many Indian regiments in the order of battle including the Garhwalhis and Gurkhas from the great Himalayan range, men who were even farther from home.
The Connaught Rangers were stationed in India at the outbreak of the war and accompanied the Lahore Division thousands of miles to the western front. The Devil’s Own now stood shoulder to shoulder with the 9th Bhopal Infantry and the 129th Baluchis, a lot closer to Tipperary now than they were – the Rangers had helped popularize the music hall tune, It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary, at the outbreak of war.
For days above Robert’s head, the world’s first war planes buzzed about the skies and what a sight that must have been if his thoughts were not on home, his family and his own life. The night before the attack, a light snowfall turned to damp morning mist as he took his place in the line. After a thunderous barrage lifted and the squeal of a thousand whistles, Robert went over the top.
It was a world away from the Christmas Truce a few weeks earlier when the Royal Irish Riflemen were among thousands of troops from both sides who got up out of their freezing trenches and tromped across the snow in open ground to greet each other in no-man’s land – or in this one warm instant, everyman’s land.
Now, after the initial shock and awe, the British Army got bogged down once more in the mud, hampered by delay, and a breakdown in communication and supply. So, Neuve-Chapelle also became a pointer for the problems that lay ahead when commanders could not learn quickly, adapt and re-deploy.
Following a tremendous advance, the Royal Irish Rifles helped secure the village but they were ordered to stop. Then on the 12th and at bayonet point, the Rifles had to weather wave after wave of German counter-attack. The battalion held fast, but at the cost of over 450 souls.
Rifleman Robert Arthurs, our much loved family member, was one of those.
He is buried far from home but beside his comrades in Merville Communal Cemetery, close to Neuve-Chapelle.
In the Letters of Lt-Col. George Brenton Laurie. the commander of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles records this poem by Rifleman J. Dickson:
R.I.R.’s at Neuve-Chapelle
Come, please just pay attention, and a story I will tell
Of how the gallant R.I.R.’s were the first in Neuve Chapelle;
Colonel Laurie gave the order for the regiment to advance,
And when they met the Germans our boys did make them dance.
With bayonets fixed we rushed them, though outnumbered five to one;
Each one did prove a hero, and many a gallant deed was done;
Our noble Colonel, he was killed, our Major fell as well,
And a score of our brave officers lost their lives at Neuve Chapelle.
Our men were lost in hundreds, no regiment could do more,
And when the fight was over our officers numbered four;
Yet manfully they struggled amidst that living hell,
And out of all the British Army were the first in Neuve Chapelle.
Then here’s to the gallant R.I.R., those riflemen so brave,
Who nobly did their duty and found a soldier’s grave;
So may their glory ever shine, for they have proved their worth,
And laurels brought to Ireland for the honour of the North.
It is not for me to say that this was not his war. Instead it is with great pride that I remember Rifleman Robert Arthurs on the 100th anniversary of his death.
Le grá go deo.
This article was updated with the support of academic and writer, John Ó Neill, Check out his superb Treason Felony Blog